Friday, June 29, 2007

Influencer of Spiritual Formation in Malaysia (2)

Chinese Culture and Religions
for those Malaysian Christians of Chinese Origin

Chinese culture and Chinese religions are powerful societal spiritual formation influencers on the Malaysian Chinese Christian psyche. The Chinese psyche and history is strongly influenced by Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and subsequent Confucian scholars. The Way of Confucius is based on two thesis; “that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and peace under the guidance of wisdom” (Yao 2000, 26). Out of these two theses are developed four precepts of the Way (dao), ritual/propriety (li), humaness (ren), and virtue (de). The Way (dao) of Confucius leads to the formation of the ideal or virtuous man (junzi), who is in harmony with Heaven and Earth. Becoming a junzi is achievable by learning, and the cultivation of virtue and self-control. This includes the Confucian ideal of family (jia), cult (jiao), and learning (xue)[1]. (Yao 2000, 26-30)

Confucianism was later incorporated into Taoism. When Buddhism was first introduced into China, there was a conflict with Confucianism. Gradually however it was incorporated into a syncretistic folk religion consisting of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and animism. Many Malaysian Chinese Christians come from families that still worship this Chinese folk religion. This involves going to temples on festival days, ancestor worship and having family altars.

However Confucianism remains the key to understanding the Chinese identity. Chang Lit Sen, a Chinese apologist, theologian, scholar in Asian philosophy and Distinguished Lecturer in Mission Emeritus in Gordon-Cornell Theological Seminary, writes, “Confucius has been respected by Chinese people not only as a great sage but also as an idol in their hearts, they strive to imitate him as Christians imitate Christ.” (1999, 40) To be a Chinese means to embrace the latest incarnation of Confucianism. Confucianism is an inseparable part of the Chinese identity. Whalen Tai, a faculty member at the Department of Religious Studies, University of California at Davis, California makes an interesting observation between Chinese identity and Christianity.

He observes,

There is one underlying cultural link. Chinese Christians might denounce Buddhism and Taoism as pagan and superstitious but not Confucianism. Even in the most Christian of Chinese families – the notable sign of which is the greater egalitarianism between church-going spouses and generally greater freedom for the offsprings – the behavioural patterns are still very much Confucian. There is still a greater sense of filial piety, a greater stress on book learning, familial loyalty, hard work, etc. than in a typical Western counterpart which
would cultivate greater individuality still, with more physical vigour, personal independence, romantic openness, venturesome traits, etc.
(Lai 2000,132).

The Chinese psyche is strongly influenced by Confucianism. It is estimated that 90% of Chinese students in Malaysia attends the Chinese School system. This is a separate school system form the National Type Schools run by the government. This school system uses Mandarin as its medium of instruction. Its philosophy of education is strongly influenced by Confucianism. The pedagogy is indoctrination of Confucian values.

Yao Xin Zhong, Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter observes, “Many Chinese converts made use of Confucian philosophy and ethics to reformulate Christian ideas.” (Yao 2000, 242). This is true of both Chinese and English speaking Presbyterian Christians, though more marked in Chinese speaking Christians. Confucianism teaches a personal moral code of ethic behaviour that finds the Protestant doctrine of unconditional personal salvation offensive (Chu 2001, 209).

However, there is a great emphasis on building right relationships. The five key relationships in Confucianism are ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend. Chu Sin Jan, associate Professor of History, Chinese university of Taipei, notes,
…their (Chinese Christians) Confucian way of reflecting on Christian theology shows their concern that Christians, in the pursuit of ren, be in relationship to establish their character and other people’s character as well as to live in harmony with each other and with God. Confucian values, not to mention Confucian logic and language greatly color their Christian faith. Their Confucian heritage makes them more concerned about personal and social ethics than anything else
(2001, 210)

Therefore Chinese Christian relates more to spiritual formation which involves relationships and community better than to personal salvation. Historian Roxbough notes that, “In Malaysia this is a church which for much of its history has rejected the idea of being Presbyterian in favour of wishing to be Chinese” (Roxbough 1992, 101). The Malaysia Chinese lives in a continuum between two cultures: Chinese and Malaysian. One end is Chineseness and the other end is Malaysian multiculturalism. Where one is on the continuum decides one’s behaviour. Samuel Ling, President of China Horizon and researcher into cultural trends that affect Chinese Churches observes that “the Chinese model is rooted in the traditional Chinese family and clan, which sees adults as the focus, and children as appendages. (Ling and Cheuk 1999,69).

This will have an effect on how Chinese in churches plan for children’s ministries[2]. In traditional Chinese culture, leaders and teachers are to be respected. Hence a pastor’s decision is final and accepted without arguments (Ling and Cheuk 1999)148. Again this will create problems in many churches especially amongst the English educated who sees the pastor as an equal and call him or her by their first name.[3]


Chu, S. J. (2001). Confucianism and Christianity. A Dictionary of Asia Christianity. S. W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Confucius (1999). The Analects. Hunan, China, Hunan People's Publishing House.
Lai, W. (2000). Cultural Confucianism, Cultural Christianity: One Dilemma of the Modernized Chinese. Confucianism in Chinese Culture. H. T. Cheu. Kuala Lumpur, Pelanduk Publications (M) Sdn Bhd: 113-140.
Ling, S. and C. Cheuk (1999). The "Chinese " Way of Doing Things. Vancouver, China Horizon and Horizon Ministries, Canada.
Yao, X. Z. (2000). An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.


[1] This is a very simplified version of a very complex philosophy and ideology. See Confucius (1999). The Analects. Hunan, China, Hunan People's Publishing House. It has often being argued by Confucian scholars that there is no one Confucianism but many; as Confucianism have evolved into different incarnation throughout its thousands of years of Chinese history. See Yao.
[2] Children and Youth ministries are not given much attention in Malaysian Presbyterian churches until recently. What caused a change in focus is the realisation that most youths when they leave their home churches to go to the bigger cities to study do not join Presbyterian churches but churches of other denominations. The solution by the ESP is to form youth orientated churches in the bigger cities. Another area of concern is the role model of fathers in the Chinese culture. Fathers in Chinese culture are often distant, disciplinarians, and business minded. Bishop Ting of China writes, “In fact, the proper Chinese way to refer to one’s own father in polite conversation is the “severe one in my family”…” One wonders how this will affect the perception of the Heavenly Father in the minds of children from these families who became Christian.
[3] These are but two examples of Chinese thinking affecting churches with both Chinese and English educated members. Other examples quoted are evangelism directed to children and not families (p. 142-143), respect for pastors and leaders (p.147-149), and sharing testimonies in public (p.143). Non-Christian families are often unhappy if their children become Christians, respect for leaders and pastors mean not speaking so because to do so is to ‘shame’ them, and for Chinese sharing their ‘achievements’ or giving testimonies in public is taboo (“showing of”, “pride”, “disrespectful”). Ling, S. and C. Cheuk (1999). The "Chinese " Way of Doing Things. Vancouver, China Horizon and Horizon Ministries, Canada.


  1. "Hence a pastor’s decision is final and accepted without arguments (Ling and Cheuk 1999)148. Again this will create problems in many churches especially amongst the English educated who sees the pastor as an equal and call him or her by their first name.[3]"

    Now I see why conflicts can take place when the core group of a Mandarin service is English educated and the pastor is Chinese educated.Useful post!

  2. hi blogpastor,

    cultural differences and expectations can be a major source of conflicts in the church.